The Big Three
Peter Simonson, executive director of the state's American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, sits down with the Alibi for our yearly check-up on the three biggest intrusions on New Mexicans' freedoms
Do you see the church-state divide closing in this region?
Sure. Several months ago, we faced a program by the U.S. Marshall's Office to create a court proceeding in a church as a means of attracting people with outstanding warrants to get them to turn themselves in to the federal government.
That happened in Albuquerque?
That particular case was piloted in Cleveland. The last we heard we were among the first string of cities where this was going to take place. We had some strong concerns about how the church was going to sponsor that effort, and how that church was going to be perceived as a government-endorsed church, basically. You can imagine the irony of judges and bailiffs and defense attorneys performing their normally quite secular activities in the context of a church and surrounded by the trappings of one specific religion.
What about abstinence-only funding?
The key example is when the federal government is funding—with so little supervision—organizations that have a formal religious mission. They've taken measures to cloak that religious mission in names that make them sound simply like objective nonprofits doing simple, unpolitical education work.
Best Choice Educational Services Inc., for example. At first glance it doesn't seem like an organization that has any other mission but to promote education. In fact, it and the organizations it's closely allied with have a profoundly religious mission to promote a particular perspective about how the family should be organized, what sorts of relationships are legitimate, which ones are not and, most importantly, what sort of sexual activity is permissible and what's not.
Oftentimes, it's in stark denial of what the data actually shows are the most productive ways to prevent teen pregnancy and communicable diseases.
There you're battling not only a covert effort to insert a religious perspective into public schools and use public schools as a platform to evangelize students, you're undermining practices that have proven to reduce teen pregnancy and communicable disease.
Is that something we're seeing in New Mexico?
Absolutely. Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars go into this particular organization and then they're contracted by different schools around the country to perform abstinence-only education. That is a key concern. We have been actively monitoring their activities throughout the state through the use of public records requests and FOIA requests. That's a very laborious and time-consuming process.
Has all of this culminated in a lawsuit already, or is about to? How will this play out over time?
We've explored litigation on various issues within abstinence-only. The information we were getting was dated, and we feel like we need to be more on top of the most recent things that are going on. In fairness to organizations like Best Choice, they've become more cautious about the curriculum they use and any references it makes to religious beliefs.
What about immigration?
Certainly, that's another area we're focused on. That's a strategic priority. Ensuring that federal immigration laws are not enforced in such a way that they violate the basic rights of people living in New Mexico, whether they're citizens or whether they're immigrants.
Are they enforced against citizens?
We had a case two years ago where we represented a woman who was born and raised in Española who was being investigated by a state police officer as if she were an undocumented immigrant simply because she spoke Spanish. Her identity documents were unlawfully seized. So part of the reason we're interested in immigration issues is that when you weaken the rights of one group of people living in this country, that automatically is used in adverse ways to affect other people—citizens in this case.
This year, how do you see that issue coming up?
One of our main goals is to open an office in Las Cruces, a three-person office defending border rights in the region.
That was supposed to happen last year, wasn't it?
We've hired the director now, the southern office regional director. Her name is Maria Nape. She's putting the office together right now. We don't yet have a place to stay. For the rest of this year, most of the objectives of that office will be to simply do a needs assessment of that region. What are immigrants rights advocates seeing? What are legal services organizations seeing? What are communities, immigrant or citizen, seeing in that area with regard to the way laws are being enforced and how are they affecting people's rights?
Your staff attorney, George Bach, mentioned ACLU-NM concerns about domestic surveillance last year. Is that still a priority for you?
In this last session, we and other allies were very active in encouraging the Legislature to pass a memorial that would have rejected the implementation of the Federal Real ID act in the state. This is a sweeping federal law that would basically co-opt our state driver's license and make it into a national ID card scheme. It presents real problems for our freedom of movement. It can be used internally as a passport to deny people access to commercial aircraft, federal agency buildings, even parts of the country.
So it would have additional information. Like your police record?
They haven't said that affirmatively, but it is required to have some sort of data-storage capacity. The fear is that it would contain some sort of RFID chip, a radio-frequency ID chip that can store a lot of data, not just your basic driver's license information. It could store your criminal records. It could store Social Security information, tax information, things of that nature.
Yet another concern is that private industry might be able to appropriate it for its own purposes and begin to store its own data on there so that there's a government-sponsored way of those companies freely sharing information about that individual consumer. They could develop a more precise profile of who you are. The minute you begin to combine private enterprise's interests and the government's interests and you can track them through space and time or when they make commercial transactions—that puts you under a lot of scrutiny. That eliminates the anonymity we, as Americans, have come to expect and assume being a member of such a large and complex society.
What about red-light cameras?
The growth of surveillance cameras throughout the state definitely concerns us. You've got red-light cameras used amply in this city. Las Cruces appears to be moving toward a similar scenario. The city is exploring putting cameras all along Nob Hill.
There's some Downtown, too.
This creates an increasing weight of surveillance and of the expectation that your behavior is being scrutinized when you're out in public. That ultimately has a depressive effect on people's willingness to express themselves. Or their instinct to express themselves in political ways, oftentimes. If we have security cameras down in Civic Plaza, how many people will choose not to participate in a controversial rally that challenges government policy on the war? Maybe they're concerned they might be identified as a national-security threat or something.
That's not all that far-fetched. When you have the FBI in certain parts of the country covertly infiltrating even church-based peace groups to gather information on people who are working on those activities, people have a legitimate fear that the government is tracking them, developing a case on them.
Security cameras will become an issue in the future, too. These cameras, unfortunately, haven't proven to be very efficient or effective. You've got to have someone sitting in front of a camera in order for it to be an effective law-enforcement device. The cameras can't cover all places at all times. Even if they do, you can't have someone watching all of those monitors at all times in any sort of economical way. The minute those cameras are used in an inappropriate way, as they have been in other places around the world—that's probably when we would get involved in a more in-depth way.